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REVIEW: There’s a quiet foreboding to Slow West that lingers in the edges of every delicious frame of this offbeat, wholly original morality tale masquerading as an American Western. Great swaths of rich gold and green mountains streak across the horizon and grassy plains so vast they stretch like an ocean to give the characters of this story their stage. Yet all is steeped in a palpable trepidation. We meet Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a 16-year-old from Scotland who has followed the woman he loves after an accident which he believes he sent them running to the United States. Searching for her alone, he manages to survive in the harsh backcountry where one day, facing an outlaw trio of ex-Civil war soldiers hunting Native Americans, he is rescued by a gunslinger named Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who, after hearing the young man’s tale, agrees to ride with him as paid protection. What Jay doesn’t know, and what Silas learns but doesn’t tell is that the boy’s true love and her father are wanted, and there’s a substantial reward. Jay is going to take him right to them.
This is not a romanticized cowboy story. Life in these parts is harsh. People are sparse but when but when they meet, it’s often deadly. At an isolated trading post run by one weathered older man, Silas and Jay stop to load up on provisions and maybe get a meal. In walk a young emigrated Swedish couple, ravaged and soiled, asking for blankets. The husband, shaking with fear, pulls a gun and in broken English asks for money. The owner pulls a shotgun and fires first, prompting the young wife to draw on him. When it’s over, with Jay and Silas surviving, they discover an even more traumatizing surprise outside. This is the way in Slow West.
In his directorial debut, John Maclean (who also wrote), formally a member of the now defunct The Beta Band (who many might recall gained international attention after John Cusack mentions them by name in the film High Fidelity), reveals a confident and very disciplined hand as he unravels his intriguing story. Maclean is patient and allows moments to unfold with care, letting long sometimes disquietingly pensive scenes pass in silence or more often with Jed Kurzel‘s (The Babadook) simple but haunting score as accompaniment. His story is weighty, and touches on much more than just a young man’s ambition. Most all the people we meet are not native to the land: Germans, Congolese, Swedish, and more. They are often displaced or on the run or trying to make their way. We also meet Native Americans as well, and they are always in persecution, berated as being savages or lamented as a lost civilization. It becomes clear that Jay is a metaphor, a symbol of the new country he is traveling within. MacLean (Scottish) openly admits that all he knows about the American West comes from reading Mark Twain books and watching TV and films. He’s not trying to reproduce reality here. His fantasy is clear, but it is effective as he basically reinvents the genre (New Zealand even stands in for Colorado). When Jay befriends a writer out on the open prairie and then wakes up utterly alone, robbed of his horse and clothes, we aren’t meant to ask how the writer stole away in a horse and cart without making a noise. That is not the point. Learning about trust and developing cynicism is. That the ending finds our hero, after traversing this epic journey, unceremoniously faced with a true and literal conflict of the heart is further proof that in Maclean’s world, if love is the gun, truth is the bullet.
Scene Setup: Throughout the film, including the opening shot, Jay is seen lying face up on the ground looking to the stars before he sleeps. He seems to know the constellations by name, if not by location. During these moments, he also remembers his time in Scotland trying to convince the girl, Rose (Caren Pistorius), that he is right for her. Of course she is a bit older, and in his mind flirtatious, but calls him the “little brother” she never had. We learn much about their relationship and how it has come to be where they are now, with him riding west to find her. All of these cutaways involve looking back except one, the last one. This time, it is a future.
The Scene (Timestamp 00:53:42): In the dream, he finds himself in a quaint prairie home, a wooden house, in a single room with white paneled slats. A tiny potbellied stove rests to one side and at the center is a small table and two chairs. Rose, in an ankle length skirt and long-sleeved top reads a book by candlelight. It starts dark but becomes illuminated by intense, warm backlit light. Jay is on the floor, reclining against a wall, delicately smiling at the woman he loves. In from the side door, accompanied by a thunder clap (despite the bright day) walks Silas, holding a newspaper. He smiles at Rose, a she returns the gesture. Silas sits opposite the younger girl and they both give Jay a look, like a pet dog obediently curled in the corner. But in fact, it is not Jay they are looking at, or so it seems. Rose rises and walks toward the camera (Jay’s point of view) and reaches as if to to touch him, but instead lifts a swaddled baby from an unseen crib. She returns to the table and cuddles it gently to her chest as Silas looks on. “Jay-bird” she whispers to the infant, “Why so sad?” It fades to black.
It is a brief moment that is easily lost between two rather dramatic scenes, but is much more significant. It is here, finally, that Jay recognizes how he suspects he is truly seen by the two most important people in his life. With Rose, back in his homeland, he is desperate to be a man for her, but she can’t believe him to be so. All the while they are together, as he acts the mature one, she plays with him like he is a child, as if babysitting for a neighbor’s boy. With Silas, he is constantly in need of rescuing, and he treated like child (at one point, Silas even shaves the un-bearded boy).
What’s telling about the scene is the setting. The house that Jay dreams of is in fact, the actual house that Rose is now living in, even though he has, to this point, never seen it. It is stripped bare of every detail other than the stove and table, but is the shell in which his true loves resides. Even more is how Jay is positioned in the dream. Sitting on the floor, he foreshadows a moment later in the film where he finds himself in the exact same position, albeit a different situation, though no less devastating. Like much of the film, we must look closer to understand and Maclean challenges us to do so, especially here as the fantasy echoes the reality in very significant ways. The story is not literal, nor should it be taken a such. This small dream sequence hints at the parable of a boy becoming a man, learning about the wilds of real life and the ache that true love can bring. Slow West is the journey of a boy, a dream, and a nation, and one worth taking.